Arden has surrendered his claims to the throne of the Kingdom of Aither in order to be with Prince Edmund of Thalassa as his husband and prince-consort. The neighboring kingdom of Tycen has been trying (with great success) to stir up anger and violence between Thalassa and Aither, and while there are suspicions that Tycen was behind the assassination of Arden’s own father, there is no proof. Arden and Edmund are also fairly certain that the assassination attempt on Queen Hollis — Arden’s sister, originally intended to be Edmund’s bride — was at the hand of a Tycen ambassador.
Forced to flee Aither with only their lives, Prince Arden has agreed to marry Edmund in his sister’s place, uniting the warring kingdoms. With this wedding, and this treaty, and — one day — an heir with loyalty to both kingdoms, Tycen is now facing a united force as both Thalassa and Aither have set aside their enmity. War is in the air, heralded by the smoke of burning towns as Tycen redoubles its attacks on the borders, determined to win at any cost. Thalassa’s water mages are doing what they can, but it isn’t enough.
Knowing time is running out, Arden and Edmund must find some answer to Tycen’s growing violence. Their hope lies in the powerful elemental magics and an ancient ritual. Arden, with his affinity for air, and Edmund with water, are only two of the four elements. They need someone with earth and someone with fire willing to stand with them if they have any hope of saving their kingdoms.
A Harmony of Fire and Earth is the second book in the Elemental Magicae series and can not be easily read as a standalone. The story picks up almost exactly where the prior book left off and even starts mid-conversation as Arden confronts Edmund with the fact that Edmund’s brother is not, in fact, dead. Much of the world building and the explanation of how and why magic works in this world, as well as the importance of sylphs and undines, are explained in the first book. The politics of the world, the ancient betrayals and alliances, are also explained there, as well as how Tycen has been manipulating everyone. Here the issues are only glossed over.
Edmund and Arden — water and air, respectively — are a grounded, loving couple. For all that this was not only an arranged marriage, but a political alliance, the two men are truly devoted to one another. If you have not read the first book, witnessed their first meeting and the difficulties they had in finding one another, as well as in getting to know one another, their romance may feel unearned or even superficial. Trust me when I say that Arden’s cool reserve and Edmund’s deceptive bland friendliness are the shells they put up for other people. As princes, every move they make, every word they say carries weight. Even the clothes they wear will be judged and interpreted by a variety of people, and for two princes fighting to bring peace between two kingdoms, they are well aware of such things. Arden and Edmund often reflect on the politics of their positions and complain and regret the lack of privacy. The two of them can’t even take a walk around the palace without guards and without everyone knowing where they went, how long they were gone, or even stopping by for a glance, a question, or just to gawk and eavesdrop. If they didn’t have each other, and have the trust of a few close servants and friends, their lives would be untennable even without the assassination attempts and the possibility of war hanging over their heads.
In addition to Edmund and Arden, the story also focuses on Gareth, Edmund’s younger brother, and his relationship with Rhys. Thalassan nobles and royals tend to have an affinity for water magic. Gareth was born with the gift of fire, an impossibility with his father’s bloodline, which means his mother most likely had some indiscretion that resulted in Gareth. The king, in his rage, locked his younger son away and exiled his wife from the court. Gareth managed to escape his prison and hasn’t been home in years. Now he’s hiding in Aither under the name “Gaz.” But when he hears that his brother needs someone with a strong gift for fire, Gareth puts aside his fears and heads back to Thalassa along with Rhys.
Rhys has a gift for earth. He’s a gifted healer who has had a crush on the mysterious “Gaz” for several years, but it isn’t until he and his sister are asked by Arden and summoned to Thalassa that he finally makes a move and asks if he can kiss the other man. As he and Gareth get to know one another, what began as an affair quickly begins to turn into something more real as Rhys finds himself falling for “Gaz.” When the secret comes out about who Gaz — or rather, Prince Gareth — truly is, Rhys has to make a choice. Accept the betrayal, or say farewell to the man he thought he knew.
Gareth has been living, for so long, under a veil of secrecy. Even now, if his father found out where he was, he doesn’t know if he’d end up being imprisoned again (this time more securely) or killed outright. He finds it hard to trust anyone and has resigned himself to being alone for the rest of his life. With Rhys, though, he felt — for a moment — as though he could put down the burden he’s been carrying for so long and let someone hold him, comfort him … love him. All Rhys wants is to make Gaz smile, to make his day brighter, but he didn’t have the courage to try until he thought he’d have to leave Gaz behind. Putting himself out there was frightning, and hard, and to find out that Gaz has been lying to him about so, so much … he isn’t certain if he can trust the other man again.
It’s interesting, reading about Gareth and Rhys’ turbulent relationship with Arden and Edmund’s new life as such a sharp contrast. The way Arden and Edmund speak to one another is markedly different — air and water versus fire and earth — and the way they handle arguments and stress and even the secrecy of Gareth’s true identity speak to the skillful characterization of these four men. One of the big reveals in the first book was Arden is transgender. One reason he has been allowed to marry Edmund in his sister’s place is his ability to provide an heir. At no point in this book is Arden ever treated as anything — or anyone — other than who he is. No one mistakes his gender, even after his pregnancy is revealed.
The author has put so much work into the world building, the politicking and realities of being forever in the public eye, that they managed to make the world truly come alive. The magic system was interesting, and the introduction of special elemental spirits made me wonder what more there was to come. However, the ending of this book leaves a great deal to be desired. Having set up so carefully the threat of Tycen and the importance of joining the elemental magics, the end result of the four men and the four elements coming together feels a bit rushed (and maybe a bit overly convenient). It almost felt like this was just the stepping stone for a third book that would deal with what would happen once magic fully came into play, but instead it just … ended. I honestly felt let down by the ending, which — when contrasted against how much I enjoyed the rest of the book — leaves me feeling rather meh about the whole thing.
Still, the relationships and the characters are there, and if you have read and enjoyed the first book and want to know what happens to Arden and Edmund, I do think you’ll enjoy this one. Read this book for the characters and the setting, but keep in mind that the ending just sort of happens and most of the loose ends will still be there, flapping around when you’re done.